11 terrific documentaries to look for from the True/False film festival

<em>The Hottest August, Knock Down the House</em>, and <em>Chinese Portrait</em> all played at the recent True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.” src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/tQ6VZsiKBFrCFMV_i5acvbYvKWI=/56×0:1656×1200/1310×983/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/63238085/headshots_1552075475511.0.jpg”></p>
<p>From cults to Chinese family policy, Aretha Franklin to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, these movies explore the world with courage and artistry.</p>
<p id=Only a few lucky documentaries land a berth at the annual True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, one of the most respected all-documentary festivals in the world. It lasts for just over three days, and it’s tightly programmed, with an eye toward films that challenge the form of the documentary itself. You won’t find a lot of talking-head, issue-driven docs at True/False; instead, the festival seeks out movies that push and prod and challenge their audiences.

This year’s programming, at the 16th edition of the festival, was no exception. The lineup included films from the US and abroad, with political and social aims, that told personal and historical stories, that made audiences chuckle and cry. Filmmakers were present to discuss their films with festivalgoers, the majority of whom were from mid-Missouri. And everyone who attended seemed to come away feeling confronted, confounded, and delighted.

Every movie that plays at True/False is worth seeing. But here are 11 of the most interesting movies from the 2019 festival, and how you’ll be able to watch them in the months ahead.

Amazing Grace

Kept under a bushel for more than four decades while it was held up by both technical issues and lawsuits, it seemed like Amazing Grace — which Sydney Pollack filmed in 1972, as Aretha Franklin recorded the live album of the same name that would become one of her most acclaimed — would never see the light of day. But in 2018, it was finally finished, just months after the singer’s show-stopping funeral.

The result is a concert documentary, one of the most electrifying ever made, that captures Franklin at her peak, backed by the Southern California Community Choir over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. And for its 87-minute runtime, those of us in the audience aren’t an audience at all. We’re bearing witness to one of the greatest performances of all time. We get to be part of a ritual of remembrance, a cry for mercy, and a long plea for justice. If we’re just sitting there watching other people make music — instead of participating in it ourselves as engaged audience members — we’re doing it wrong.

Amazing Grace opens in theaters on April 5.

American Factory

A scene from American Factory.Sundance Institute
A scene from American Factory.

Directed by veteran documentarians Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, American Factory follows along — mostly in a fly-on-the-wall fashion — as a closed GM factory in Dayton, Ohio is reopened as Fuyao Glass America, the US branch of a Chinese company that manufactures automotive glass. Daytonians who struggled after they were laid off from GM rejoice when they are rehired by the new company, but soon find that their expectations about labor practices and corporate culture clash with the new management’s ideals.

The film tracks American and Chinese workers and managers through a years-long period of adjustment, some of it quite rocky. American Factory tackles the challenges of globalization with much more depth and nuance than most reporting on the topic, precisely because it steps back and watches a story unfold over time and resists easy generalizations. It’s both soberly instructive and fascinating.

American Factory will be released in the US by Netflix. It is awaiting a release date.

Caballerango

Caballerango takes its title from the Spanish word for “horse wrangler,” and there are shots of horses throughout the film, which gently and penetratingly explores the fallout after a young caballerango named Nando dies by suicide following an argument with his father. Directed by Juan Pablo González, the documentary is made up of images of Nando’s father with the horses between long discussions with the residents of his rural town in Mexico.

Their stories slowly reveal that suicide — especially among younger people — has cast a shadow over the town. The friction between the demands of modern life and the town’s slower, traditional ways are part of the issue, so Caballerango doubles as a portrait of modernity’s demands on people’s mental health and identities.

Caballerango is awaiting distribution.

Chinese Portrait

A scene from Chinese Portrait.Chinese Shadows
A scene from Chinese Portrait.

Chinese Portrait is a stunning trip through modern China, a vast country with a diverse population and landscapes. The independent director Wang Xiaoshuai decided to create a portrait of the country by making literal portraits, albeit on film. He began traveling around the country, filming long, static shots of what he saw and often asking one or two people in the frame to look directly at into his camera, as if they’re in a painting.

Because Wang’s camera does not move, and he provides no narration to explain where he’s filming, the film invites the audience to become intimately engaged with its images. As viewers, witnessing the movement around the static figure looking straight at us feels like looking at a living photograph. So whether we’re watching workers leaving a factory, strangers on a train, or young people at a bar, what we’re seeing is a whole world, action and emotion swirling around individual people.

Chinese Portrait will be released in the US by Cinema Guild. It is slated for theatrical release in late 2019.

No Data Plan

The young director Miko Revereza was brought to the US from the Philippines by his parents when he was 5 years old and has been living in the country as an undocumented immigrant for more than 20 years. While contemplating leaving, he took a trip from Los Angeles to New York via Amtrak, and discovered once aboard the train that it didn’t have any wifi available. And he didn’t have a data plan on his phone. So, unable to use the internet, he started filming what he saw with the camera he had brought along.

The result is No Data Plan, a documentary that marries observational cinema — images of what passes outside the train windows, footage of Revereza’s discussions with fellow passengers — with Revereza’s narration in voiceover about his own family’s experiences and, eventually, his frightening encounter with border patrol officers on the train. It’s a beautiful, meditative, and jarring film, a sketch of a country where Revereza does not feel welcome as it grapples with its own identity.

No Data Plan is awaiting distribution.

The Hottest August

A scene from The Hottest August.Cinereach
A scene from The Hottest August.

Documentarian Brett Story is interested in how people and their places dwell alongside one another; her previous film, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, used vignettes filmed throughout the US to explore the concept of imprisonment and policies around it. For The Hottest August, Story spent August 2017 — a month of extraordinary heat, both literally (temperatures in the US hit all-time highs) and metaphorically (social and political tensions roiled in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere that month) — to explore Americans’ anxieties about the future and, in particular, the effects of climate change.

The Hottest August consists largely of on-the-spot interviews with New Yorkers, mostly in places where cinema rarely ventures (non-hipster Brooklyn, beach communities on the city’s fringes that are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, and cop bars on Staten Island), who talk about their hopes and fears for their future and their children’s futures. In the background, white nationalists march in Charlottesville, hurricanes hit Houston, and a total solar eclipse happens. Optimism, pessimism, and realism mix. And the film leaves us to draw our own conclusions about life on a planet and in a country where things seem uncertain, and hotter than ever.

The Hottest August is awaiting distribution.

Knock Down the House

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a featured subject in Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House, which premieres in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.Rachel Lears / Sundance Institute
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a featured subject in Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House.

Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House follows four progressive Democratic candidates, all women, who ran primary campaigns against establishment Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections: Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. Only Ocasio-Cortez was ultimately successful in her bid, and Knock Down the House feels, in the end, as if it’s mostly her story. (The fact that she is incredibly charismatic doesn’t hurt.)

But Lear smartly selected her candidates to get a sampling of women running in districts across the country, living in very different places, to make a larger point: Whether or not you agree with a given individual’s politics at every turn, there’s a hunger to upend America’s current ruling class. The result, while clearly a liberal feel-good movie, sounds a broad note of hope: It’s not just blowhard billionaires with media expertise who have a chance to represent “real America.” Plain old shoe-leather canvassing and showing up in your community can make a real difference.

Knock Down the House will be released in the US by Netflix. It is awaiting a release date.

Mike Wallace Is Here

A scene from Mike Wallace Is Here.Sundance Institute
A scene from Mike Wallace Is Here.

Journalist Mike Wallace pioneered an interrogative form of interviewing famous subjects — politicians, artists, and other public figures — in an era when doing a TV interview still mostly meant lobbing a few softballs near a softly roaring fire to entertain the audience at home. He consistently went for the jugular, eventually becoming the iconic figure at the helm of 60 Minutes and setting the standard for what Americans expect from TV journalism.

Mike Wallace Is Here, drawn entirely from archival footage of Wallace (much of which has not been seen before), is a portrait of the man and an examination of his tactics and goals. The movie at times feels like its aims are muddled — it tries to become a defense of the free press near the end, while leaving the audience with questions about how Wallace’s life and his interview style affected one another. Still, it succeeds richly at showing not just the development of one man’s career, but of a whole journalistic institution.

Mike Wallace Is Here is awaiting distribution.

One Child Nation

A scene from One Child Nation.Sundance Institute
A scene from One Child Nation.

Director Nanfu Wang grew up in rural China under the “One Child” policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015. Her own parents had two children, since the law made an exception for families in rural areas, as long as the children were five years apart — but not until after her mother narrowly escaped involuntary sterilization. Many other women were not so lucky, being forced into sterilization and abortion against their wills. The mental, physical, and emotional toll on the country, especially its women, was tremendous.

Through a documentary that’s part personal, part journalistic, Wang explores the ramifications of the One Child policy. She speaks with a midwife in China who was had to perform abortions on thousands of women; an artist who depicts the grisly results of the policy; and a couple in the US who help adopted Chinese children try to reunite with their biological families, many of whom sold children to orphanages for adoption abroad because they already had a child. It is a harrowing film that confronts and confounds Western ideas about agency, choice, reproduction, and bodily autonomy.

One Child Nation will be released in the US by Amazon. It is awaiting a release date.

Over the Rainbow

A scene from Over the Rainbow.True/False Film Festival
A scene from Over the Rainbow.

Over the Rainbow may be the strangest and most haunting film to have played at True/False. On its surface, it’s another documentary about Scientology, the religion founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard that has been the subject of many films, books, and even TV shows in recent years.

But Over the Rainbow isn’t really about Scientology. Through interviews with current and former Scientologists, including people who were raised in the group, director Jeffrey Peixoto gives voice to a larger phenomenon: a natural human attraction to religion and other systems of belief, and how strange those systems can look from the outside. Over the Rainbow seems calculated to infuriate most everyone, since it doesn’t pass judgement on Scientology nor condone it. At its core, the film is an attempt to get explore the psychology of believing in something through the voices of believers themselves.

Over the Rainbow is awaiting distribution.

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John Edward Szeles, aka The Amazing Johnathan, in Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary.Sundance Institute
John Edward Szeles, a.k.a. The Amazing Johnathan, in Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary.

The conventions and ethical sticky wickets of the documentary filmmaking business are skewered in Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary — that’s its actual, permanent title — which is ostensibly a film about the magician John Edward Szeles, who goes by his stage name The Amazing Johnathan. As Szeles tells it, director Ben Berman, who appears as the film’s narrator and maybe its real subject, decided to tell Johnathan’s story after he disappeared from public life following a diagnosis of a terminal illness.

But Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary is not really a movie about Johnathan. In the film, Berman seems to quickly “discover” that other filmmakers are also trying to make documentaries about the magician, who could die any minute. Berman goes to increasingly bizarre lengths to make sure he gets there first, then starts to question his own methods. And all along, it’s not entirely clear that he’s is being straight with us about what he knew and when he knew it — but that’s sort of the point. Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a farce about the business of making documentaries, especially ones that profile celebrities, and whether you find it fascinating or infuriating, it’s hard to look away.

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary will be released in the US by Hulu. It is awaiting a release date.

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